Educational Freedom vs School Choice

This week, Republican legislators in the Georgia General Assembly introduced HB 999, a bill they are saying “funds students not systems.” From the jump, I’d like to say this is a bill I’d cautiously encourage legislators to support. In a marvel of anatomy and politics, however, HB 999 manages to both overreach and fall short.  

What Does HB 999 Do?

HB 999 provides some students $6,000 for some schools. The “some” in there is so important I’m going to dedicate a section to each. It creates two brand new committees (more bureaucrats making education decisions) to oversee the allocation of funds and the qualifications of both students and schools. It sets testing standards for participating students. Finally, it adds all kinds of reporting to various bureaucracies that already exist, making them ever-so-slightly more bloated and burdensome than they already are.

Some Students

I said I’d get back to the “some” portion. Some students qualify for HB 999 funding. Qualifications include: 

  • The student’s parent(s) need to live in GA. No problem here. We’re spending Georgia tax money, it might as well be a benefit for Georgians.
  • The student must have been enrolled in a public school in Georgia for at least 6 weeks in the year prior to enrolling in a qualified school. Students and parents who have had enough of public schools and were already finding other options are out of luck. They don’t qualify. Their taxes still go to fund systems.
  • The parent has to sign an agreement promising:
    • They’ll teach a curriculum consisting of at least reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science. More politicians dictating education instead of leaving it up to the people involved.
    • They won’t (re)enroll their student in public schools, including charters, while in the program. This makes sense since public money is already being funneled into those schools.
    • They will only use the funds for qualified student expenses. Again, politicians are trying to insert themselves into the education process to qualify what does and doesn’t constitute an education. Politicians should have no say.
  • The student isn’t receiving scholarships as defined in Title 20 Chapter 2 Article 33 of the Georgia Code. You can only qualify to have your own tax money back from the state if you agree not to take money offered voluntarily from other sources.

Some Schools

And here are the list of qualifications for participating as a school:

  • Submit a financial report that demonstrates financial soundness as determined by the committee that’s being created. More bureaucracy! Government programs never have to demonstrate fiscal responsibility.
  • Have been in operation for over a year. No new schools!
  • Comply with antidiscrimination provisions in Federal Law. Not sure you can be a “school” without doing this.
  • Comply with health and safety laws and codes that apply to private schools.
  • Another bullet that says comply with laws regarding private schools. They really mean it.
  • And, only employ teachers who have a bachelor’s degree or higher or at least 3 years experience in education. Legislators don’t want education options that think too far outside of the standard box. Only limited innovation will be encouraged, by people who’ve already been shaped by a certain system.

The state continues to strictly limit who may call themselves a  school; pandemic pods, self-directed education spaces, unschoolers aren’t covered. Many liberty minded educators, including homeschoolers, prefer not to take taxpayer money because it always comes with strings and interference. 

Some Standardized Testing

Standardized testing is among the most widely loathed aspects of government school programs. The rigid application of relatively arbitrary standards (these sight words in kindergarten, so many multiplication tables by second grade) ignores the diversity of our children. Memorization and teaching to the test damage children’s natural curiosity, limiting the true, organic potential of both teachers and students.  

This bill requires schools to administer at least three tests in math and language arts per year. To prove they conform to “standards,” schools will be required to recreate one of the worst parts of modern public schools.

Some Other Notes

One line in this bill really stands out to me:

The creation of the program or the granting of an account pursuant to this chapter shall not be construed to imply that a public school did not provide a free and appropriate public education for a student or constitute a waiver or admission by the state.

Lawmakers literally put propaganda into the bill itself. The most important people for this program to reach are those to whom currently public schools did not provide appropriate education. The eagerness of families to pull children from assigned schools the moment they can afford to is itself an indictment of assigned schools – whether the state ‘admits’ it or not. 

The Committee established by the bill will  set up the bureaucracy that funnels money from the state to eligible schools. The expensive administrative bloat is inevitable. Graft, cronyism, and rent-seeking will follow. 

But, hey, at least the $6,000 parents get back won’t be considered taxable income. That’s got to count for something.

Educational Freedom

I didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about this bill, but the truth is, it does create more choice for students in Georgia. It illustrates the difference between narrow “school choice” bills vs any kind of true educational freedom. The bill allows some state education money to “fund students, not systems,” but really only slightly expands the systems they’re willing to fund. Enforcing standardized testing and hours of bureaucratic compliance on innovative programs makes those programs look a lot like what’s already failing Georgia kids. You can “choose” anything at the burger joint, but it’s a limited menu.

Georgia lawmakers aren’t qualified to define what education should work for every kid. If parents are eager to move their kids into other options, let those options proliferate and diversify, customizing their offerings. 

To advance the short-term goal of improving the range of education options available to Georgians, I support this bill. But to move toward true educational freedom, get the ever-growing bureaucracy out of the way and let educators innovate. Give students the power of real choice.

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